Fast-casual Kigo Kitchen will open its first location next month in South Lake Union (202 Westlake, near John), giving Amazonians a lunchtime destination for customized stir-fry bowls, and giving Seattle a first look at a business-school brainstorm made real.
Cofounder Steve Hooper is a Seattle native who developed the idea while he was getting his MBA at Dartmouth. While Hooper cheerfully admits “we analyzed the bejezus out of” his idea, it has roots in his youthful love of local teriyaki—which he confesses to eating three times a week while in high school.A few years back, Hooper couldn’t find any restaurants doing a good, fast-casual version of Asian. And so was born Kigo Kitchen, a setup where customers approach a long counter of fresh vegetables and protein that’s been marinated or brined in house and design a rice or noodle bowl that gets quickly wok-fried to order with one of the house sauces. Combinations skew toward the healthier side of the fast-casual spectrum—you can order your stir fry on a bed of greens.
Customers can go with a bowl designed by Kigo’s head chef, Heather Nucifora, or build their own. Nucifora has a background as a dietician and nutritionist; she and Hooper say Kigo’s strength lies in the sauces she has concocted. They don’t skew completely traditional; the Kigo-yaki (aka teriyaki) is made with Chinese five spice. Shiso gives an uncommon dimension to the pineapple tamarind sauce, and the peanut sauce has hoisin to keep it from being too sweet. Ditto for the sweet and sour sauce, which contains tamarind. A garlic lemongrass sauce avoids being too creamy.
The Seattle menu is still being finalized, but predesigned versions might include the panang curry sauce with steak and the pineapple tamarind paired with pork. The menu also lists calorie ranges, which fall below 900.
“We’re not claiming authenticity,” says Hooper. “We think we provide a lot of bold flavors, but at the end of the day it’s an Asian-inspired concept for the American palate.”
Yes, he has heard of Shophouse, Chipotle's new Southeast Asian chain, which also offers customizable rice and noodle bowls at locations in Southern California and Washington, DC. It came along after Hooper came up with the Kigo Kitchen concept. And yes, he has done some recon there.
Shophouse, says Hooper, convinced him that Kigo could even make its flavors a little bolder. And if Chipotle’s market research suggests this type of food is a good idea, then Hooper thinks he must be on to something. “Ultimately in the food business, all competition is hyperlocal,” he says. "It’s who’s next to you, and who else can you walk to.”
The company is headquartered on Capitol Hill, but last year it got an unusual opportunity to open a location at Boston’s Northeastern University—basically a chance to develop and test the food with college students (who tend to be, um, very candid) and with a financial assist from the dining hall. Now Kigo Kitchen is basically trading one campus for another, preparing to feed hungry masses of Amazonians who are vocal in their preference for good food that’s inexpensive and fast. Just ask Tom Douglas.
In Seattle, the land of glorious chef-owned eateries, it's easy to be skeptical of a restaurant that's so overtly a business. But it’s refreshing how candid Hooper and his team are about their aims, and how thoroughly they've thought through the food. This city is full of hot brains and food lovers, and the combining of the two is an interesting new outgrowth of our restaurant landscape (another newcomer, fast-casual salad restaurant Evergreen’s, also began life as a business school project).
The South Lake Union location is shooting for an early November open, and Kigo is planning to open a few other locations around town in the next year. The restaurant will be open for lunch, after-work happy hour, and early dinner hours; you can track updates on the website as it develops.